Broken Horns

(this is the fourth part of Claire's story. The rest may be found under this tag)

The forest floor is cool against Claire's cheek, sun-warmed ground no match for the fearful heat radiating from every inch of her body. Her wounds burn, sharp and dripping; her eyes brim with tears and her unwise fingers still clutch the flower.

Yellow and gold rise around her like a buzzing tide, each little bee-body blazing like a jewel in the sun's bright light—a mob nerving itself for the first strike, eagerly awaiting the violence that will follow as soon as some brave soul gives the rest permission—

Claire cowers, curls up as small as she can. The wave's first drops splatter forward to spend their stings on unfeeling fabric, dying lost and alone against tight-woven cotton. She can hear the way their meaningless deaths incense the swarm, the way its buzzing gathers strength—

She presses her face into the ground in fearful supplication; one last whimper escapes her lips, and then—

And then—


No vengeful swarm falling upon her, no swelling constellation of poisoned stings filling her mind with pain! Buzz fading, something muffling the sun—

She stays curled up, just in case, but soon curiosity overwhelms her and her eyes unwisely expose themselves, peeking out through the smallest gaps their lids can make.

The forest is dark.

Not the darkness of an unwary cloud or gathering eclipse. It's the deep, empty darkness of a forgotten cave, the darkness of a geode born buried deeper than light has ever reached. The apocalypse's pitch-black.

Trees creak all around her. The last specks of golden bee-light flee. Thick, warm fur brushes her face and tickles her nose.

Claire struggles not to sneeze, struggles not to breath—whatever it is smells strangely familiar, vexingly so, as familiar as the darkness pressing against the walls of her parents' house or fallen flowers dying beneath careless feet.

She really does try her best.

She fails.

Darkness recedes as her sneezing fit claims her, and through eyes which won't start watering until long after it's gone she catches a glimpse of that vast shape—its body flowing like a watery slug, its banks of wings, the stubs of broken horns—and that eye, that vast eye! Ringed in silver, a subtle detail devoid of texture against its rough emptiness, staring down at her as if it's about to swallow her whole—!

A moment later the forest is full of light once more, and Claire stumbles home.